Hating What You Just Wrote
Everyone hates what they write at some point. The trick is to convince yourself that this is perfectly normal.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a writer, or a painter, or a sketch artist, or even a game designer. A fundamental truth about being a creative person is that at some point you will, 100% guaranteed, look at something you’re creating and hate it.
Here’s something I frequently see in writing communities on Twitter:
Does this ever sound like you?
To add to the misery, you might even share something that you know you should be proud of with a significant other or a friend — knowing, somewhat subconsciously, that they’re not going to hate it, but then assuming they’re lying to you when they actually tell you they like it or that they’re excited to see where it goes.
And then, to add misery to the misery already added, you, like me, possess the common sense necessary to see how utterly ridiculous it is to think and feel this way.
The truth is, everyone hates what they make. At some point, at least. And anyone who says they don’t absolutely hate what they are making at some point is either
- lying to you,
- lying to themselves, or
- a little bit of both.
When I find myself hating what I just wrote, I start reflecting on my feelings and try to get my finger on what specifically is causing me to feel this way. For me, it has to do with making decisions about my story.
Reaching a “Pull Point”
I don’t start hating something until I get to what I call a pull point.
What I envision when I am writing are specific points in my script or draft where the characters are being pulled forward through the plot by their choices and actions. These are the decision points that characters are up against, the things that define who they are and, ultimately, what kind of story this is going to be.
It is in these moments where I am having to make these massive, irreversible decisions about my story that the writing loses its romantic quality. It starts to feel like work, and instead of getting to enjoy the play, I’m mired in the details of set design that I take me out of that euphoric state of flow.
In other words, it starts to feel like work, and once it starts to feel like work, my brain wants nothing to do with it.
I think a lot of people are this way because we grew up fantasizing about becoming an author and writing for a living, and then anytime something like actually writing comes along and dispels the illusion that we’ve grown comfortable with, we avoid it.
We want to cling to the idea of what writing was to us as we imagined being a prolific writer — not the realities of how hard and exhausting good writing is.
Whether or not you are subconsciously holding on to some fantasy of what you think writing is, all writers, when they’re starting out, fall into the trap of thinking writing should always be this beautifully magical activity where creativity pours in like sunlight after a light summer rain and you are writing away like madness in the corner of your house.
That does happen, but by and large, writing is one thing and one thing only: its work.
Writing is work. Writing is hard work. Writing is frustrating, challenging, depressing, and exhausting work — and yet, ironically, we still feel a need to do it.
So make those decisions. Flip a coin if you have to. Or, if you are certain that you MUST make the right decision about a particular pull point, fast-forward in your story and start writing the ending or the climax. Work your way backwards to the pull point to see what needs to be chosen in order for the story to align with your climax and ending. Another option is a decision tree: draw out two or three possible decisions for your pull point and map out what the story will look like if the character chooses each, then keep the one that excites you the most.
It wont matter which one you choose because as long as it gets the reader to where the ending is, you can always come back to it during the rewrite and polish.
We feel compelled to create, and although we cannot control the incessant drive to be creative, what we can control is our expectations — both of our writing and of ourselves.
What To Expect When You’re Expecting Garbage
It’s a fairly common saying that the first draft of anything is garbage, so why don’t we believe it?
The whole “first drafts are shit” quip is easy to read and say, but not so easy to digest for those of us in the throes of a good flow. I used to have “first drafts are shit so just get it over with” printed out and taped to the wall next to where I do most of my writing, and yet a really exciting idea that has been brewing all morning that turns into pages and pages of “productive” output will, almost certainly, turn into me hating what I just wrote.
BUT THIS IS NORMAL. You are supposed to hate your first draft; that’s why it’s called a draft!
When you are just starting to chip away at a story, it’s not whether the writing is good or bad that matters, it’s whether your premise is believable or not.
Your story is like a statue that you are going to make out of a block of soapstone. At this phase of sculpting your story, you are only putting together big fat blocks of soapstone. You’re not carving yet, so of course your big bunch of rocks is not going to look like a completed, polished statue.
When you look at your draft, it’s not going to invoke the emotion that you are hoping it does once it’s completed.
And do you know why?
Because it’s not completed yet!
Even if you draw in great detail what you want the statue to eventually look like, you aren’t going to be able to see and feel the end result until you spend an enormous amount of time chipping away at the thing, piece by piece, and then polish it like crazy.
Writing is hard work because we can’t begin sculpting our story until we have the words to start sculpting, and we can’t have the words to start sculpting until we write them.
We have to have words in order to sculpt a story!
No one cares what the sculptor’s soapstone looks like before the statue is chiseled out, nor does anyone even think about how much stone was trimmed and shaped and from where.
The only thing that matters is your vision of what your art is going to look like once it’s done.
Until you’re able to start sculpting, you have to keep adding rock, and adding rock, and adding rock, making sure to have a lump in the general shape of what you envision it to become eventually.
If your first draft is getting all the stone together, then rewriting is the painfully beautiful act of chiseling out a statue.
We need to practice telling ourselves that it’s okay to like the premise and not the method; as long as we believe in the story we are telling, we can forget about how we are telling it until the whole thing is complete. Not liking what we’re writing means we can both accept that the writing needed to be done and that the writing needs to be rewritten eventually.
Managing our expectations of our story while it’s still being written means being okay with garbage for a while. It’s going to be garbage forever, just long enough to get the whole story down. Sculpting cannot begin until the base rock is there.
This is a skill that non-creatives simply do not have, and is a huge factor in differentiating between art, craft, and the art of crafting when it comes to storytelling.
Someone who hates what they wrote is someone who has everything they need to write something good.
The difference between someone who has written something good and someone who has written something bad is that the person who wrote something good reworked and reworked and reworked and chiseled away and shaped and polished that thing until it resembled what they envisioned it to be.
I’ll bet you know people who always talk about the great statue they’re going to create but never grab that chisel and start sculpting. There are whole industries designed around self-help for people who like to pretend they will one day be a content creator. In writing communities specifically, there are A) people who want to have written a book, and B) people who want to write a book.
Be the latter. Commit yourself to the process of writing, and not the end result. Forget about what it will be like once your book is done, and instead focus on what it will be like being an actual writer: sitting down, every day, and focusing on your work. That’s the only difference between a creator an a non-creator: a creator creates.
You shouldn’t like what you wrote at the beginning — that’s normal — because the statue you’re sculpting isn’t supposed to look like a block of soapstone; it’s supposed to look like a statue, and our first draft is just the words that make up that block of soapstone.
Twitter can be a great place to find little nuggets of motivation, especially when you find other creators. The anxieties and insecurities of being a creator are not isolated feelings; we all feel these things. Sometimes it’s nice to feel like we’re not alone.
I really like the analogy of praise feeling like feathers:
When it comes to the irony of our lives, @authormbdavis figured it out:
Loving the Garbage you Hate
Our writing is always going to be garbage until it’s been polished, and sometimes it’s still garbage even after we’ve polished it. The trick is to remember that if you don’t like what you are writing, that’s normal. If you don’t like what you’ve published, that’s normal, too. Something we wrote ten years ago isn’t going to resonate with us today the way it did ten years ago — but it will resonate with someone today who is in the same frame of mind you were ten years ago.
Stories are funny like that. What we write sometimes isn’t the story that we want to read — it’s just the story that we need to create. So when we go back and read something (especially something that hasn’t been polished) We as creators are driven to produce cultural artifacts to share with others, and in a way, casting off those boats to go find other people floating in that great ocean that we’ve learned to tread water in.
We can learn to love our work even though we hate it because we know it’s garbage by reminding ourselves that, once we polish it through rewriting, it will in fact turn into the thing we want it to be.
Rewriting is the art of sculpting the story out of the block of stone that we’ve created. Give yourself permission to write words that you know are not your best combination of words; let go of the expectation that garbage will be anything other than garbage. Writing garbage is not the same as publishing garbage.
Jesse Lawson is a writer in California. He publishes a weekly-ish newsletter called Coping with Creativity. Check it out!